THREE days before Anthony Leaver bites my head off for asking him how many people have crammed into Madison Square Garden for the Anthony Joshua-Andy Ruiz Jnr weigh-in, he insists on buying me a pint at one of his favourite New York watering holes. Anyone who has had any dealings with Matchroom Boxing’s Head of Media will know that’s the kind of guy Leaver is: A loveable little bundle of fun with a fuse even shorter than he is.
Affectionately known as “Winkle” by his Matchroom colleagues, the diminutive Leaver became a familiar face at British rings over the last decade, building relationships with the fighters and the media, before his “dream move” to New York in 2018 where he now plays a key role in the promotional outfit’s US invasion.
Residing in the Big Apple, with an office that overlooks the Manhattan skyline, Leaver is not quite kicking back and enjoying the view, there’s too much work to be done for that, but he’s certainly feeling at home in a country he’s always admired. After sacrificing a one-year relationship with his girlfriend to make the move – “It basically came down to Matchroom or her, which was difficult,” he admits – Anthony is suitably excited about the task ahead.
“At the moment we’re just a small fish in a very big pond,” Leaver explains. “But I love it out here and we’re already making huge progress. We know we can do here what we did in the UK. Some people seem to want us to fail but I’ve never understood that. If we bomb out here then I’m f**ked. Why would someone wish for that?
“The desire to see another promotional outfit fail is not a desire that Matchroom shares or ever has; when I hear of a rival promoter having to cancel a show, I feel genuine sympathy because I know how much hard work will have gone into it. In the end, though, we just have to focus on what we’re doing.”
The 37-year-old has come a long way since he joined the company 11 years ago. Late in 2007, after studying to be a journalist, he spotted a job advert in The Guardian for a Matchroom Sport Press Officer, specifically to work in golf and poker. Leaver remembers the interview well, when he walked into a room at Matchroom HQ in Brentwood to be greeted by a young Eddie Hearn and Matt Porter, their chief executive.
“One of the main points of concern during the interview was the fact I didn’t know how to drive,” Leaver recalls. “The interview went well, but on the way back I got a message from Eddie. ‘You are definitely going to learn how to drive?’ ‘Of course I’ll learn to drive! Of course I will!’ Well, I still can’t drive. I had lessons, but I was terrible at driving.”
Hearn would later admit that he had been terribly hungover on the day he interviewed Leaver and couldn’t really recall any of the other candidates. So, without a driving licence but with the good fortune to be last in the interview chair on that particular day, Leaver was granted a three-month trial. It seemed to go okay; he has been working for Hearn ever since.
“Eddie hasn’t changed,” Leaver insists. “You can’t say the success has gone to his head because he grew up surrounded by success. He’s still the same, still the same Jack the Lad sense of humour, still very much the same character I met all those years ago. He’s always been driven, perhaps from the pressure of his dad’s reputation, but he works frighteningly hard to deliver that success.
“Lots of journalists get in touch with me and complain that they can’t get hold of him. Well I can’t get hold of him either. It’s not like I’m sitting there next to him and can just give him a nudge and tell him to answer his phone. He doesn’t even answer the phone to me anymore but I understand the bigger picture and we’ve all got our roles to ensure we don’t have to speak to him every five minutes – that’s what he pays us for.”
For the first two years of his career, Leaver, alongside Hearn, focused purely on golf and poker as per the job description. And then faltering British heavyweight Audley Harrison walked up to a gambling table and changed everything.
The story of Harrison, part of the celebrity poker circuit, and Eddie Hearn coming together in a Las Vegas casino is often told. It effectively reignited Hearn’s relationship with boxing after being an avid follower as a child when his dad, Barry, was among the UK’s leading promoters. Harrison tempted Eddie – then focusing on Matchroom’s involvement in online gaming – to take a chance on him. He was also the catalyst for Leaver to find his way into the sport.
Leaver would write press releases for early Prizefighter events before taking over as Matchroom’s chief boxing press officer ahead of Harrison’s doomed shot at WBA heavyweight champion, David Haye, in 2010.
“I didn’t have a f**king clue what I was doing,” Leaver chuckles today. “Not a clue. That was where people like [photographer] Lawrence Lustig and Johnny Wish [Matchroom’s former Head of Boxing, John Wischhusen] were amazing to me, they helped me out so much.
“I didn’t even go to the Haye-Harrison post-fight press conference because I didn’t know that was a thing. I didn’t go to the Amir Khan-Paul McCloskey post-fight press conference either. I just left. I just assumed that they wouldn’t be doing a press conference. They’d just boxed hadn’t they? They must be completely knackered! I had no idea.
“It was such an eye-opener to go from doing the odd Prizefighter bit to then doing a world heavyweight title fight. I remember Eddie telling me to go and have a chat with Audley. So, in the Park Plaza hotel where an early press conference was, I was in the lift with Audley, making small talk and trying to think of what to say. Eddie was waiting for us at the bottom. I came out alongside Audley, who is about two-feet taller than me. Eddie just laughed. ‘You can’t do that again,’ he said, ‘because that looks absolutely ridiculous’.”
Young Leaver would soon find fighters he was better suited to than erratic 6ft 5ins heavyweights. Despite Harrison’s awful showing against Haye, when he lost in three rounds, Hearn’s obvious knack for promotion saw fighters like Carl Froch, Darren Barker, Gavin Rees, Tony Bellew and James DeGale work with Matchroom. Lever would build solid friendships with them all. But the nature of boxing, the short-lived careers, the highs and the lows and the often-delicate egos involved, means that such friendships can be difficult to sustain. Inevitably, such relationships endured some difficult moments.
“It’s awful when they lose,” Leaver reports. “The worst one was of the lot was [Scott] Quigg after he’d lost to Carl Frampton. Being in that dressing room, he was devastated, absolutely devastated. I felt like I had no business being in there let alone telling him what to do. It was a real grudge match and, after he’d lost, he was inconsolable. There were tears, we left him alone, but I was the one who had to go back and say, ‘You’ve got to do a press conference now, mate.’ Full credit to him, he put on a t-shirt and did the presser, with a broken jaw and with tears in his eyes, and then he went straight to hospital.
“Even when the fighters have won it can be difficult to ask them to go and do a press conference. They’re in a room surrounded by their loved ones, often loved ones they haven’t seen for months, the last thing they want to do is go and speak to the press.
“It’s hard to fathom how much they’ve been through, not just in the fight, but in the months leading up to it. It’s impossible to have nothing but admiration for them.”
That admiration is as easy to empathise with as it was for Anthony to get carried away with. One night in particular taught him a valuable lesson for the future. Leaver had spent a lot of time with James DeGale and accompanied him and his family to America when the 2008 Olympic champion challenged Andre Dirrell for the vacant IBF super-middleweight on a Lou DiBella-promoted show in May 2015.
Without the pressure of being the press contact for the Boston event, instead acting solely as DeGale’s UK representative, Leaver took his seat and watched the action unfold.
“James and his family had been so welcoming to me,” Leaver explains, already cringing at the story he’s about to tell. “I got lost in it all. When he fought Dirrell I got told off by Sky Sports because I was sat right behind Johnny Nelson and, well, let’s just say I lost all decorum. I was on my feet in press row, screaming and shouting for DeGale to win. After that, I moved further and further away from press row because I didn’t want to make an idiot of myself again.
“If I was to sit ringside now, I’d feel as if I’m taking it from someone who is more worthy than me who should be there instead. I strongly disagree with PR people who take a ringside seat. Someone else should be there.”
Indeed, allocating press seating, that dreaded process of ‘media accreditation’, makes Leaver shake his head and take a hefty gulp of his IPA when he’s asked about its complexities. It is Matchroom’s policy, out of consideration to their broadcast partners, Sky Sports and DAZN, not to have a ‘press room’ because one would encourage the media to come and go as they please. It’s not a good look, Leaver reasons, if a camera operator trying to film the ring walks bumps into someone conducting an interview.
In that regard, Leaver likes to ensure the media have the right access to the right areas. More importantly, it is down to Leaver to ensure the right people are covering the event in the first place. He insists on managing the whole process himself, from alerting the media to the event and then sifting through the increasing number of applications that follow.
Matchroom’s biggest events, like all the major promoters, are always over-subscribed. It makes the job an arduous task with many ‘outlets’ consisting of one person chancing their arm by creating a YouTube channel or website in the hope they can secure a ringside ticket to a big fight or access to a big name. Leaver, to his credit, will take each one seriously, taking the time to assess even the most obscure application. However, it’s the telling applicants who do have a case for entry, but ultimately miss out, that Leaver finds difficult.
“It’s the worst part of the job. Of all the people that miss out, loads of them will go to all of our smaller shows, they will go to all the press conferences but – and this is the hardest part, and I genuinely feel bad – there isn’t room for them even if they deserve to be there.
“But the truth of the matter is if you’re dealing with national newspapers or international brands with a huge reach online, you cannot say no. They simply have to take priority. Ultimately, and simply, it’s a business. It makes the most sense to us, as a business, to have the media there who can put the most eyes on the event.”
‘It’s hard to fathom how much they’ve been through, not just in the fight, but in the months leading up to it. It’s impossible to have nothing but admiration for them’
Certain members of the media are more precious than others and grumble that they haven’t been given the access to certain big-name fighters. Leaver is quick to point out, somewhat pertinently given Anthony Joshua’s downfall four days later, that the fighters’ priority should always be focusing on actually winning the fight, with media commitments coming a distant second.
And Anthony Leaver should be left alone when he’s got a job to do – particularly at a world heavyweight championship weigh-in when writers are picking silly times to ask unimportant questions.
“I love my job, I absolutely love it, though you might not think that if you encounter me during a big fight week,” he laughs. “I can be a bit blunt and I know that. It’s a character flaw. But I always want these things to go as smoothly as possible.” And when Leaver’s on duty, they usually do.